Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett


This is probably the only ‘poem’ I’ll ever write:

Leonards Hill
Bonnie Doon
Blackburn South

The homes of my childhood, Victorian country towns – except for Blackie Sth, a suburb of Melbourne, now leafy, then new red brick and tile. For my father, markers of his progress through the teaching service and into the bureaucracy. For me, constant changes of school, 5 years, 3 years, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, dux of class, class captain, move, repeat, till in 1968 I matriculated with 3 first class honours, a fail in English and a bare pass in Calculus, with a pregnant girlfriend, and an insufficient grounding in mathematics, already heading for a life in trucks, away from supervision and away from people.

This is a book about sons and fathers, and it has set me off. I had a childhood like the boys in this book, church on Sundays, school on weekdays, but otherwise, from the age of six or seven, free to jump on my bike, head off to a mate’s house, or out into the paddocks, to a game of tennis or to swim in the river or at the pool. Mum home cooking, Dad sober. An idyllic childhood. And it makes me angry. I know fathers who came home drunk, fathers who beat their children, fathers whose behaviour in relation to their daughters, and sometimes their sons, was unspeakable. And still I’m angry, about the friends I didn’t keep, about the father I didn’t have, about the second-rate teaching I got at Colac High so he could be District Inspector.

Golden Boys is set in a suburban neighbourhood in an unnamed city in an unspecified year. A middle class suburb of mixed weatherboard and red brick houses. It feels like (Melbourne suburbs) North Blackburn or Clayton or Reservoir in the 1980s with cheaply constructed post-war housing and young families, but it could be anywhere. Strangely, though it’s November it’s too cold for swimming, so maybe it’s Hobart. Everywhere I lived, before heated pools, swimming started at the end of the September school holidays.

The principal actors are Freya, Declan and Sydney Kiley, aged 12, 11, 10; Colt and Bastian Jenson, aged 12 and 9; and two boys from broken or damaged families Avery and Garrick aged 11. And that’s the other problem, two problems really, I have with this story. The boys all knock around together. My brothers are 2, 5 and 7 years younger than me and I would have had to be really desperate to play with even the nearest. At different times Freya and Colt are the same age, then Declan, Syd and Colt are, then Syd and Bastian (who’s a bit of a baby), or Avery and Bastian and so on. It doesn’t ring true.

Spoilers. Which takes us to the second problem. The central focus of this novel is that Rex Jenson buys Colt and Bastian flash toys, a roomful of flash toys, and a swimming pool, in order to entice other boys into his house where he can molest them. Or at least his behaviour can be construed that way, and we are given plenty of hints that he has moved to this neighbourhood because he had to leave his previous one. The secondary focus is on Joe Kiley who comes home drunk on payday and is getting increasingly violent towards his wife and children (there are 3 or 4 more younger ones I haven’t named). Hartnett insists Golden Boys is an adult novel, not YA, but it doesn’t read that way. The POV we get is the kids’, not their parents, and even if it’s not suitable for 12 year olds, the novel appears to me best aimed at, say, 16 year olds.

The Jensons have just moved in. Colt and Declan get on ok and (father) Rex makes clear that all the boys are welcome, not just to knock around on their bikes, but to come in, use the toys, get something to eat.

Declan from early on is uneasy about Jenson’s behaviour, worried that Syd is gravitating towards the toys and more particularly the pool, where Jenson can towel him down, tuck his clothes in. Avery, a parentless boy, almost a street kid, keeps his distance and surprisingly it is the rough boy, Garrick, who is first to complain. He has to tell someone and he tells Declan and Syd:

Without looking at them he says, ‘He wasn’t naked,’ and adds swiftly, ‘Neither was I. he didn’t make me touch his toggle -’

Then he tells them the full story, of him and Avery having a swim in the Jenson’s backyard pool in the evening, with Rex looking on “Making his stupid comments”. Then Avery slips away and Garrick is caught:

‘… he grabs me and, really quick, he tucks my shirt into my jeans. He sticks his finger down the back of my jeans, stuffing my shirt in… He cops a feel of my arse, Declan!’

So Colt finds himself friendless. Again.

There’s other stuff going on. We never completely lose sight of Freya, who persuades herself she’s responsible for her parents’ failing marriage. She also develops a crush on Rex Jenson, and turns to him for help when her father’s violence gets out of control. Rex intervenes, Joe fights back by accusing him: “You’ve been touching my kids”. Rex shrugs it off and that would seem to be that.

Golden Boys is an odd book, dealing with important issues, and Hartnett, as you no doubt know and I had to look up, is an experienced and much awarded author, but I think she got the tone of this one wrong. For adults it should have been much darker, and for YAs it should have been clearer about what they could do. At the end, even if he has to move again, Rex Jenson seems to have not suffered at all.


Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys, Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 2014. Audio version, Bolinda Books, 2015, read by David Vatousios


17 thoughts on “Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett

  1. I love your poem Bill and thank you for your very personal intro to this review.

    I am a very big fan of Hartnett (some books I’ve liked more than others but there are things that she does consistently well, such as writing about suburbia and making it seem like she is talking about exactly the place where I grew up).

    I heard her speak about this book and although I wrote a post about that talk, I never published it. From memory, her talk delved into the issue of sexual abuse and domestic violence but very much in the context of the time period (1970s and 1980s) – were people more complacent? Did society ‘put up’ with/ excuse men who did these things more readily? I don’t know the answers to those questions and I certainly didn’t feel right about trying to communicate what Hartnett said about what is a very serious issue.

    In terms of the book, I think I ‘enjoyed’ it more than you. I finished the story asking myself “Who’s worse? Rex or Joe?” and then I said to myself “What the hell? How is that I’m even comparing a paedophile and an alcoholic wife-beater? They’re all the worst!” But Hartnett paints you into a corner in this story, and has you weighing up Rex and Joe, wondering who is ‘more at fault? And I thought that that was very, very clever writing.


    • Abuse and fathers and all that is a very difficult subject to write about disinterestedly and I can very easily imagine not publishing. The fathers I knew were fathers of the 50s and 60s, and that generation seem to have often regarded children as prey – far more so than I knew at the time. The people who, like me were young parents in the 80s were often dealing with that, not always well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And the struggle to deal with it was much of what Hartnett talked about but again, so hard to report when the context is highly specific and not representative of everyone’s experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I quite liked this book but my favourite Hartnett books are Thursdays Child (the audio is really good) and Of a Boy.

    Oh, and Leongatha? I live in a neighboring town on an Angus beef farm.


    • I guess I can try another one, really I listen to anything while I’m driving though a few don’t get finished. I remember Leongatha as all dairy. Couldn’t live there now, too wet, I won’t even go to WAs green southwest if I can help it.


      • It’s certainly wet, especially this time of year. There’s still a lot of dairying around here but a few beef farms too, and the odd sheep, but not many of them.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. From memory, Hartnett’s The Silver Donkey was wonderful, although it made me cry. But I was pregnant at the time… the only other of hers that I’ve read is Sleeping Dogs, which is creepy and weird too.


    • I take it the connection with being pregnant is to crying but I’m struggling with the “too” after creepy and weird, though I guess I could apply it to Rex Jenson who definitely was. Golden Boys as a whole wasn’t. It just wasn’t particularly adult. Hartnett is obviously a far more popular author than I realised, I’ll have to pay her more attention.


      • Yep. See how good I am at doing words…? I meant Sleeping Dogs addresses a creepy topic, as does Golden Boys. And I meant that when I was pregnant I cried at the drop of a hat. But yes, Hartnett is a well loved writer who has won some big prizes.


  4. I definitely agree that children try really hard to not play with younger ones, like you mentioned, Bill. My cousin Lisa, who was four years older than me, was absolutely my hero, and I loved to follow her around. She would constantly complain I wouldn’t leave her alone. We were young enough, though, that I didn’t see the irony in the way I would complain about her younger sister, who was 4 years younger than me, following me around. No one wants to be babyish, which is how they feel when they play with littler kids. There should have been a lot of abuse among the kids to establish pecking orders, otherwise, I wouldn’t buy it myself.

    I was a kid like you who knew I wanted more and deserved more, but didn’t have it. When I set foot in on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, I had never felt like a bigger loser and poser in my whole life. Now that I teach college myself, the feeling hasn’t changed a ton except when I realize I have much more experience than the PhD candidates I run into from Notre Dame. I have a lot to offer. But still. When I set foot on that campus, even today…I feel like a patchwork girl who has spend decades sewing herself together into something that approximates respectable.


  5. I liked this one more than you too Bill, and wrote a lot about Hartnett’s “voice” in my review. I think the point is that she showed the adults through young people’s eyes, and as adults we see what they see, how they interpret it, and assess that against what we understand. I liked it.

    And while I agree to an extent about young people preferring to play with their own age-group, I had a sister two years younger and we often played with each other and each other’s friends – particularly when there were bunches of kids of mixed ages in the neighbourhood. There were power relationships in that, and as the oldest sister I got the best of that (says she embarrassedly). At school we rarely mixed. In fact, I can barely remember my sister at school when, except for that transition time when I went to high school and she was still at primary school, we always went to the same one.


    • I can’t say I never played with my next brother, but very rarely. But to me it really felt as though Hartnett completely overlooked the different ages of the children, except for the much younger Bastian. (I published in a rush while I was away working. Clearly I forgot to check who else might have reviewed it. Sorry)

      Liked by 1 person

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